Wednesday, 18 February 2009

All That Glitters Is Not Sustaining

This morning on Radio Four, there was a report which told us that purchase of gold in the form of bars, coins, jewelry etc. had risen by around 80% as people sought a safer form of investment. Gold does not provide growth but it is secure. You can see why: it is an element forged by geological processes, enduring through the ages and never losing its lustre or malleability. But imagine now that you are an alien species observing earth. You'd understand that metals and minerals were precious but would you understand why these crazy homo sapiens value inert components of the earth's crust far more than they value the species and systems on its surface which are the basis of all human life? You can't eat gold, you can't use it to keep warm, you can't clothe yourself with it. Our pantheon of characters from myth, legend and fiction is populated by anti heroes who learnt to their cost the folly of valuing gold above all else. In this time of economic crisis when there is an opportunity to rethink our whole approach to the exchange, accumulation and calculation of wealth we risk making the mistakes of Midas and Bloefelt.

The systems ecologist and thinker Howard T Odum conceived with David Scienceman the concept of Emergy (spelled with an M). This is the available energy that was used in the work of making a product or any other manifestation of energy - i.e. any material, knowledge or service. Other thinkers have sought to refine similar concepts that generally refer to the embodied energy of a product or service. It seems sensible to calculate value on the basis of how much work has gone into creating something but Odum's methods explicitly link human systems to the embodied energy of natural systems. All human systems ultimately involve an input of free, natural forms of energy such as water, sunlight, soil, wood but in most industrial processes, this is supplemented by purchased inputs such as oil and gas or human labour. The more purchasing power a society or company has, the more purchased inputs it can use until natural free inputs become the limiting factor. By the law of diminishing returns, systems that rely on large amounts of purchased input are inefficient. What Odum does is to give us a common unit by which we can measure the embodied energy of everything and calculate value based on the work done in order to bring something into existence. Thus we recognise that natural inputs are not "free". Besides being limiting factors, they are themselves the products of work just as a Porshe is a product of work. So using Odum's methods, we should calculate the value of forests, watersheds and other ecosystems so that we can compare the value of gold, rainforests, information and Porshes on the basis of a common unit. Irrespective of common bloody sense, the limiting factors of life should then be valued higher and invested in appropriately.

Guyana's President, Bharrat Jagdeo, has offered to place the country's extensive rain forest under protection in return for money from the west. You can read more about the progress of this initiative here: http://www.guianashield.org/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=section&layout=blog&id=1&Itemid=50&lang=en

On BBC's Horizon last night, buried in a largely optimistic plea from physicist Brian Cox to invest in fusion power research, was a scene in which Brian and another scientist did a rough calculation on the rate of development needed to give up the world's dependency on oil and fossil fuels. It was predicated on an assumption that everyone in the world would get an equal share of energy to service their lifestyle which of course won't happen but given even the widest margin of error, their conclusions were numbing. For anyone who still thinks that we can continue living the way we are and meet all our energy needs from renewable sources, the conclusion was - it ain't gonna happen. Lets all hope for fusion power then. from rhodri@cynnalcymru.com

1 comment:

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